Nothing is real?

John Lennon’s Beatles masterpiece Strawberry Fields Forever tells us “nothing is real”. Kevin Barry’s beautiful Lennon novel Beatlebone suggests nothing is real except the present moment.

Kevin Barry’s* beautiful, poetic and dream-like novel Beatlebone has found its way deep into my thoughts over the past week. It tells the tale of John Lennon taking a trip to Ireland in 1978, to visit a nearby island he bought in the high, hippie days of the late 1960s. The island – Dorinish – is real. Lennon really did purchase this small, wind-blasted rock in Clew Bay. But the 1978 visit described in Beatlebone is purely fictional.

Beatlebone is beautifully written, delightful and thought-provoking. Please do yourself a favour and procure a copy. The book’s voice is every bit as complex as Lennon himself. Barry perfectly blends his own spare, poetic style of writing (rich with the rhythm, slang and soul of Irish speech) with Lennon’s peculiar mix of acerbic realism, guarded sentimentality and witty surrealism.

A constant theme is how Lennon’s childhood trauma shaped his adult neuroses and his creativity. Wishing to escape this unhappy past, Lennon sets off in search of a small interlude of silence, seclusion and isolation. He wants to indulge in three days of his favoured primal scream therapy. He hopes to shake himself out of himself and revive his dormant creativity.

This proves tricky. The journey to the island turns into a shaggy dog story all its own. The need to fly under the radar of the press takes Lennon on endless diversions away from his goal, encountering many strange souls along the way.

I am the seal?

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I want to share some wonderful words with you, from one of Beatlebone‘s more surreal sections. Lennon – hiding in a cave by the sea – finds himself in conversation with a seal (yes, a seal):

“You can’t go back, John.

But I just been.

He eyes the seal hard. He wants some fucking answers here. He has come all this way.

Let me see if I can explain things, John. What you do is you open your eyes in the morning, okay? First things? And it’s a particular world that appears… Am I right?

Yeah?

And what it’s got is the look of a world that’s always been. As if it will never change, as if it will never break up, as if it will never disappear.

John cuts in –

I’ve a feeling I’m not about to hear anything good here.

The seal laughs but ruefully.

Reality, John, tends not to hang around.”

“The look of a world that’s always been”. I love the poetry of this phrase The world we find ourselves born into – or that we wake into at the start of each new day – might seem solid and permanent, unchanging. But nothing could be further from the truth. The world is always changing, always evolving. Each moment as we live it is moving into the past and out of reach.

Weighing all this up, Lennon asks the seal:

“So what’s left that’s real?

This, the seal says. Where you’re sat just now.”

Nothing is real.** Nothing is real, that is, except the current moment. The seal’s words here – and, perhaps, Beatlebone as a whole – suggest that a kind of acceptance is necessary for us to be able to live our lives fully, to move forwards.

We need to accept the moment. Accept that the past has disappeared, while recognising how that past influences and distorts our present.

Time slows just enough

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Time never stops moving forward. The moment will always pass. Reality tends not to hang around. But, the book argues, it is sometimes possible to slow the pace of time so that the way forward and out of your current situation is revealed to you.

Within the dreamlike logic of Barry’s novel, Lennon’s attempt to step out of his everyday life is successful. Long before he reaches his island, Lennon has effectively stepped out of the relentless forward motion and the (to him) unbearable stresses of his life.  Beatlebone the book concludes with Lennon able to make a (fictional) return visit to England to record a (fictional and – as Barry imagines it – perhaps barely listenable) album entitled Beatlebone. Barry writes:

“Soon he will be able to make something new. He will make something delicate and fine and odd. It’s all going to work out beautifully. Because he is our fucking hero still. He can see down the hills and to the water. Time slows just enough for its workings to show – just oddly, here and there, as it will do in the Maytime. The moments bead into each other, one by one and neatly, but sometimes they reverse and spin back, too, and this explains plenty. It turns out you can play with it a bit. You can make time spin back towards you.”

“Time slows just enough for its workings to show.” I love this idea that it is sometimes – just occasionally – possible to play with time itself. Nothing is real except the current moment. But it is possible to use the present moment to pause time and revisit the past, so as to learn from it and move on.

Taking the next step

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All that is real is the present moment. Nothing is real. The past is gone, but the past lives on. All that matters is the next step that you take, how you approach the simple act of placing one foot in front of the next.

My dear friend Steve Browne wrote a lovely blog post the other day that feels relevant here. In The Next Step, Steve suggests a perfect way to balance the conflicting priorities of modern life while ensuring we don’t give in to the temptation to overstretch ourselves. Steve recommends taking a “next step” approach:

“The key to all of this is simple – stay at a next step pace on a regular basis. It’s more important to experience consistency than it is to wallow in a state of hustle and bustle.”

May you be nothing but kind today, to others and to yourself.

May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.

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FOOTNOTES

* I have previously written about Kevin Barry’s work in my 2021 post Andrew Weatherall: Ripples and tiny reminders.

*** I have of course borrowed the phrase “nothing is real” from the wonderful Beatles song Strawberry Fields Forever.

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